“Following religious law should be left to the individual.”
Yes, you read that correctly. These are the words of an expert on Islamic Law. But what makes a specialist utter such a statement? Is he not aware of how religious law is being tampered with and manipulated by fanatics to spark horrendous incidents like the attack on religious education teacher Gary Smith by four men last July on the streets of London? Although this may have been an isolated incident, there are countless other examples of the dangers of an individual taking the law into their own hands, be it religious or not. The importance of Islamic Law for Muslims in Britain, like in other parts of the world, is nothing new. However, given the negative coverage it has received in the West and the distressing image that fundamentalist rhetoric has painted across the world, Islamic law has become an issue of debate and endless misunderstanding amongst both non-Muslims and Muslims. So what does the above statement mean? Is it expressing the mercy of the divine law or providing grounds for fanatical thoughts and actions? Such questions were in my mind before interviewing the British-Turkish scholar, the source of the statement.
The two-hour bus journey across Istanbul from Osmanbey to Hadimkoy seemed never-ending, as I stewed over the scholar’s potential responses. But as soon as I entered the prestigious Fatih University that is engulfed by the Marmara Sea and began the search for the Faculty of Law through the finely cut maze of trees, my nerves settled just in time for me to step into Professor Ihsan Yilmaz’s office.
Having completed his doctoral studies at SOAS, Professor Ihsan Yilmaz was a research fellow at the Oxford University researching the faith-based movement of Fethullah Gulen. Since 2001, he has been teaching Comparative Law, Legal Sociology, Islamic Law and Turkish Politics at the University of London and Fatih University in Istanbul.
Islamic militancy, renewal of Islam and neo-ijtihad being his research niche, I sought to understand why and how some people of the community begin to authorise themselves in interpreting Islamic law according to their own interests, reducing the significance of Mujtahidun (Islamic legal experts) and Madhahib (Islamic Schools of Law) on the one hand, and creating media stereotypes of Shariah law on the other. This is what prompted Dr Yilmaz to utter the aforementioned statement. My immediate response to this was to ask him whether such a stance would be individualistic. He began to explain in detail. “The religion of Islam is not fluid but it is flexible”. He claimed that the initial reason for the flexibility in deriving religious rulings from Shariah was to facilitate freedom of thought, openness and tolerance. He also acknowledged however, that this forms the grounds upon which fanatics are able to operate. “While this was a force for good, it now leaves room for it to be misinterpreted”. Misunderstanding was, and still remains the problem.
One solution to the misinterpreted ideas of “micro-Mujtahids” (his expression for individualistic fanatics who are untrained in Islamic law) for Dr Yilmaz is to broaden the legal works of trained religious legal scholars; to produce new understandings of law according to the spirit of our time whilst keeping track of historical rulings and principles. “The great legal scholars (of the past have studied the boundaries and some boundaries remain fixed, like murder and terrorism but the nuances always need reviewing”. He is certain that “Islamic law is dynamic as it deals with changing human behaviour. It is a dynamic matter – no black and white areas – there are grey areas too”.
Secondly, he also stresses that “devising law should now continue to be expanded from exclusively the Mujtahidun to see them working with experts on different fields; legal, religious and medical scholars which will mean a new comprehensive ijtihad will be derived – they would set new boundaries suitable for our time”. This way, there is little room for micro-mujtahids to fill in gaps.
Professor Yilmaz argues that all law “should be defined through Islamic jurisprudence and by extensively trained experts.” Just as you would leave a medical operation to a surgeon, so too would you leave religious law in the hands of the scholar. However, the choice to follow or reject the ruling should be left to the individual just as the patient would have a choice before the operation. Professor Yilmaz also highlights the importance of Islamic legal traditions and their ethical principles being open to pluralistic thought in legal reasoning (ikhtilaf), a much needed and forgotten mercy bestowed upon us. Yet, he does maintain that the pluralistic and individualistic tendencies cannot be forced: “In Islamic law, the balance between the two should be left to individuals”.
For Dr Yilmaz, detailing the law is important for the purpose of limiting anomalies and giving people the option to accept the most fitting understanding, fulfilling the Quranic expression that there is no coercion in religion. As this complies with divine mercy, the same principle can be seen to be crucial for our time. Leaving the individual to choose which legal school he or she follows facilitates a more open and democratic state of well-being. In this sense Freewill and liberty are at the heart of religion. Nonetheless, Dr Yilmaz warns that “the easiest option is not an option because eventually, to God is our return.” Dr Yilmaz’s statement therefore should not be taken as a completely individualistic reduction of religious law which can be misused or ignored. Rather, it is an example of how a well-executed set of laws can create a more personal, tolerant and open system.
Photograph exclusively for The Platform.
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